Suburbia-a Walk on the Mild Side

Suburbia-a Walk on the Mild Side

In his article on “Subtopia,” William Newman has provided a vivid picture of the modern suburb. He has based his picture on Crestwood Heights, a remarkable and extremely important book which has thus far received much attention from sociologists but not nearly enough from the general intellectual public. Of necessity Mr. Newman’s picture forms a kind of static cross-section of the suburb; for the purpose of his presentation he writes as if—and rightly so—the suburb had neither a history in the past nor possible inner conflicts in the future. I should therefore like to supplement his portrait with a few notes that stress the dynamic aspects of the problem of the suburb: where it comes from, in which direction it seems to be moving and what the possibilities are for internal change.

Readers of Crestwood Heights who have lived in suburbs often report that they find the book unbearably dull. It is never entirely clear whether they are responding to the actual conditions of suburban life cr to the description of those conditions. They usually go on to say that they could have written a better book simply by setting down their own suburban experiences. Or, if they happen to be social scientists, they suggest that the whole picture could have been vastly improved by including some statistical data in place of the deplorably subjective approach adopted by the authors. It is worth noting that none of them ever contest the accuracy of the reported picture and most agree that in its larger outlines it is applicable to the communities with which they are familiar.

Mr. Newman has helped us to side step some of this tedious detail by summarizing the book so as to highlight the more dramatic features of the suburban landscape. In doing so he has made it a bit less familiar, perhaps rendering it more like something that is happening to others rather than to us. Yet one doubts that Nicola Chiaromonte’s dictum, “the mass situation involves everybody,” can be so easily defied.